Who knew that there existed a public body called the Local Conditional Release Commission? And who knew that this commission had the power to release people from city jails, as long as they are serving a sentence of a year or less?
Guy Velella knew. You can be sure about that.
Mr. Velella is a former State Senator from the Bronx, a public official who abused his office and who pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy charges earlier this year. He was sentenced to a year in prison, but after serving just three months, he found himself back on the streets a couple of weeks ago. The Local Conditional Release Commission approved his early exit after more than two dozen friends, cronies and beneficiaries pleaded on behalf of the disgraced politician. Mr. Velella has gotten away with another crime.
The campaign to free Mr. Velella was carefully orchestrated and completely cynical. The ex-Senator had barely settled into his new quarters on Rikers Island when he began calling his old friends from a pay phone. He sounded distraught, some of the friends said. They were worried that he might do something rash.
He did not—but the four members of the Local Conditional Release Commission surely did. Acting only out of compassion for the once-powerful politician, they approved his application for early release. Curiously, the commission seldom displays this kind of sympathy. During the last year, some 7,000 prisoners were eligible for early release. Five, including Mr. Velella, were granted their get-out-of-jail passes.
Members of the commission insist that Mr. Velella’s political connections had nothing to do with their decision. That’s literally unbelievable. Surely dozens of prisoners have much more compelling stories than Mr. Velella did. And yet their appeals are routinely turned down.
But when an influential former politician, serving time for taking bribes, tells a tale of woe, suddenly the commission’s heart melts? Surely the commission can’t expect us to believe this nonsense.
Mr. Velella, who served in local politics for more than a quarter-century, knew precisely what he was doing when he recruited his powerful friends to write to the commission on his behalf. His record suggests that if nothing else, he knows how to work the system. It’s clear that’s exactly what he did from his jail cell.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has vowed to get to the bottom of this business. He should. He could start by asking why the Local Conditional Release Commission even exists. He very likely won’t like the answers he receives.
How About a Co-op In the South Bronx?
While reports of multimillion-dollar Manhattan apartments may get most of the attention, the biggest story in New York real estate over the past few years has been the tremendous rebirth of neighborhoods which had been abandoned urban ruins as recently as 10 years ago. Previously grim and foreboding areas where no one would have dreamed of living—such as East New York, the South Bronx, Williamsburg, Bushwick and Fort Greene—have undergone a stunning revival, as residential and commercial developers respond to the eager enthusiasm of new residents and immigrants. The recovery of these once-blighted blocks is expanding the conventional wisdom of what it means to be a New Yorker: Sure, Manhattan will always be the center of things, but one no longer has to huddle along its glittering edges in order to feel safe and fashionable.
All the more remarkable is that the residential resurgence is taking place three years after the Sept. 11 attacks. New York suffered the worst terrorist attack in world history, and has endured a White House which has shown itself to be distinctly disinterested in our well-being. And yet the city’s status as the cultural and financial capital of the country has continued to magnetize newcomers and reassure longtime residents, who defied expectations and didn’t flee for the suburbs after 9/11. Indeed, building permits for privately owned residences rose 40 percent between 2000 and 2003. As apartment prices in Manhattan and established Brooklyn neighborhoods reach unprecedented heights, the outer-borough building boom will make sure that the artists, writers and academics who have always given the city its intellectual and creative edge will continue to be able to live here.
Partly what we’re seeing is the payoff from an estimated $5 billion, long-term investment by the city, started in the 1970’s, in the form of properties which were seized (and rehabilitated) because of overdue taxes, and tax breaks for landlords who spruced up their properties. Much of the credit also goes to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. Low crime, combined with clean streets and safe subways, is really the foundation upon which everything else rests. It’s also worth pointing out that Commissioner Kelly’s NYPD has kept the city safe without becoming embroiled in the racially charged controversies that erupted so often in previous administrations. New York is the safest large city in America; the murder rate is one-third of what it was in 1990. And just as the lower crime rate has allowed neighborhoods to emerge from decades of despair, as those neighborhoods become filled with proud home owners, they will become bulwarks against future crime rather than sources of drug dealing, family disintegration and social pathology.
There is no better reflection of New York’s future than the bustling energy that is spurring the growth of neighborhoods throughout our city.
A $20 Million Investment In Harlem School Kids
With New York’s public education system on a slow but steady march to something resembling sanity, thanks to the persistence of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, bright flashes of light are still sorely needed. Last week a Hartford money manager named George Weiss provided such a burst, announcing that he would donate $20 million to help send 400 Harlem kindergartners to college. Mr. Weiss brings his program, Say Yes to Education, to New York after implementing similar programs in poor urban areas in Hartford, Philadelphia and Cambridge, Mass. Schools chosen for the program need to demonstrate they have already taken steps toward education reform; having a talented, forward-looking principal also counts for a lot. The five New York schools that made the grade are P.S. 57, 83, 161, 180 and 182. As the kindergarten kids progress, they will be given tutoring, SAT training and summer school up until they graduate high school, after which point their college education will be paid for in full. Each school will receive an extra reading teacher and social worker. The final bill is $50 million; Mr. Weiss’ $20 million is the starting gift.
The program proves that sometimes it takes just one generous-minded individual to get the ball rolling. Following Mr. Weiss’ lead, I.B.M. is offering the five schools computers, the Harlem Hospital Center is donating medical care, and the law firm of Bingham McCutchen will provide free legal work for the children’s families for 15 years.
One can also imagine the impact of the Say Yes program on teachers, who can take comfort in the fact that their students will have a college education waiting for them down the road.